One of the production department heads on the Star Trek: Discovery “Visionaries” panel at WonderCon was visual effects supervisor Jason Zimmerman. Following the panel, TrekMovie sat down with Zimmerman and other journalists at a roundtable interview where we talked about the process for making the award-nominated effects for the series, including the new USS Enterprise.
Re-making the Enterprise
How quickly did the approach for the USS Enterprise come, or were there a lot of designs?
A lot of the design stuff comes with the art department and production design, where they put things together. They do a ton of research and a ton of study, to see what the legacy of the ship has been. So, by the time it gets to us, we have a pretty good idea of what it is going to be. As we get into it, we have our modelers talk directly to the art department to make sure we understand this is this, and how does this work, and how does this relate to that.
Fortunately for me, one of the guys who was working on the model on my team is a huge Star Trek fan and knows as much as anybody. Having his knowledge has been invaluable. He has been able to go to them and ask, “This particular thing, why does it look the way it does and where is this from?” They had a lot of interaction with the art department, but having him was really, really helpful.
Favorite and most challenging shots
Is there a particular model or shot that you are particularly proud of?
I am proud of a lot on the show. There is a lot of stuff that I think looks good. I love in episode 1, with [Michael Burnham] flying to the artifact and that whole sequence, there are some really fun shots in there. I love Vulcan in episode 6, I am really proud of that. There are a lot of cool details we put into that short sequence. For episode 10 with Jonathan Frakes, he had a lot of great stuff. And for [episode] 15 we got to do the Enterprise, so that was one of those moments where I was like “I’m done, I can retire now.”
Was there anything that was a particularly hard challenge or struggle to get right?
I wouldn’t say we struggle with it, it is always just talking about the best way to shoot something. For instance, when you shoot zero-G, that is easier said than done. You are talking about wire work and wires have gravity. So, trying a way to shoot that and making it believable, especially as it has been done really well like in the movie Gravity.
Feature film level effects, but not driving the story
What is the typical episode process?
It starts with the script and we go through it have a lot of questions at that point. We have a meeting with the department heads and Aaron [Harberts] and Gretchen [J. Berg] and Akiva [Goldsman] to talk about it and what they are thinking and what their ambitions are on what needs to be visual effects and what doesn’t need to be visual effects. After that we start building our assets and start putting together a shot list. We then shoot it and start to get an edit together and actually put into the visual effects into the edit. It evolves greatly, starting like with a title card that says, “Ship flies here,” and at the end it is the Enterprise and the Discovery facing each other.
How many effects shots are there for each episode, typically?
It varies a lot. For the season it was something like 5,000 [in total], so like a feature film.
That is kind of the ambition, to give the production a feature film texture?
It is definitely about having high-end visual effects. Ultimately the good thing about [executive producers] Aaron, Gretchen, Akiva, and Alex [Kurtzman] is that it is always about what the story is. If the story is that there are ten visual effects shots in an episode, that is what it is, and if it is 500, that is what it is going to be. We don’t drive the story, but we help it out. Looking at from that paradigm, you are not locked into a certain way of thinking. And at the same time, we get a breather every once in a while.
Have you ever had to say “no,” due to time constraints?
No, it’s like anything, it’s a conversation. It is never a “no,” it is talking to everyone to see what they want and how much time we have and going from there.
What was the most iterations of a single effects shot that you have gone through?
We had one that was 146, that was the highest for the season. That is high, even for me. When I saw that, I felt really bad for the vendor.
Was that for the ISS Charon?
What is funny is you would think it was for one of those big “scopey” shots, but I think it was just a monitor comp. I don’t know why. We kept changing the graphics.
More TrekMovie WonderCon 2018 coverage
Star Trek: Discovery is available exclusively in the USA on CBS All Access. It airs in Canada on the Space Channel and streams on CraveTV. It is available on Netflix everywhere else.
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